Season 1, Episode 24

Mary Valley Rattler

Join Benjamin Starr as he interviews Julia Avis, the Stationmaster of the Mary Valley Rattler! All aboard for a journey back in time as Julia and our train driver Bill share the old charm of a steam ride through the scenic Mary Valley. 

Hosts & Guests

Benjamin Starr

Julia Avis

Read the transcript

Ben: We’re driving our own adventure and we are on platform one today. We’ve stopped off in Gympie with Julia Avis joining us. You are the Stationmaster here today.

Julia: I am the Station master, a very important role at the Mary Valley Rattler.

Now tell us about the rattler. The Rattler has been operational again since October last year, so we are a not-for-profit group running heritage steam trains and other rolling stock through the Mary Valley.

Ben: Now who owns these steam trains because I mean they’re like collector’s items.  They are. We have one that’s owned by us and we have one that’s on lease from QR Heritage. Most of the rolling stock is owned and operated by us and restored by our volunteers. 

Ben: What would a train cost to buy an old steam? Do people ever ask you questions like this?

Julia: They do, it’s kind of depends if the trains operational, you can probably pick up a cheap train for under for under $50,000, but to pick up an operational steam train its certainly into the millions.

Ben: Into the millions. So, they must cost a lot to look after and keep nice and clean.

Julia: They do. Probably the most expensive part is the coal. So, the coal is quite expensive and to run a steam train it takes quite a few tonnes of coal and quite a few thousand litres of water. So, it’s like a giant kettle and you need to keep it boiling the whole way, otherwise you don’t go on your journey.

Ben: There is a lovely mystique with railway travel and in this country steam trains are just part of where we’ve come from.  The majestic nature of these things, people still in awe of them, aren’t they?

Julia: They are, it’s wonderful as Stationmaster to see people’s faces, the young and old.  The older generation definitely remember steam trains  from the past and they can remember going to school on them, they  can remember riding them, and the younger generation, even kids that haven’t seen it  before, the noise and the sound and the smell, it’s really everything for them.

Ben: What is it about the steam train that you love the most?

Julia: I probably love the sound it makes through the Valley. So, I live in the Mary Valley and I’m lucky to live on the line and even when I’m not at work I get to smell and hear the steam trains.  It’s got an iconic noticeable noise as it trundles through the tracks on the Mary Valley and that’s why it’s called the Rattler. It kind of makes that noise as it goes and you’ll hear it today when its comes in and I never get sick of it. 

Ben: You were saying before the train driver today, he’s in his what 80’s?

Julia: He is in the his late 70’s, I won’t add any time to Bill because he’ll kill me, but we have train drivers from all walks of life. So today we have Bill and Roger. Bill was a career steam train driver and Roger was an electronics expert that just had a passion for steam trains and he is one of our class one drivers as well.

Ben: Bill, I’m Ben, nice to meet you. What age did you start in all this?                 

Bill: I think I just turned eighteen.

Ben: Wow! There is something about driving a steam train as opposed to on the trains isn’t there? 

Bill: Well you’re got to know a little bit more about how things operate, because of the fact that it’s quite easy to become stuck on hills if you if you take that not serious enough you know what I mean?  If you just take them to quietly well you’ve got a problem.

Ben: Right.

Bill: Yes, whereas with a diesel, you just open up another notch.    

Ben: Yeah.

Bill: And this, well you flog your fireman and you run out of steam, you run out of air, you run out of all sorts of things.

Ben: Yeah. There is something so majestical about it isn’t there?

Bill: Yes indeed.         

Ben: It’s amazing to think that we still have these wonderful machines around, I’m often intrigued. I mean, can you learn to become a steam train driver, do you run courses here?

Julia: Yeah, we do. So, all of our train crew are volunteers, so we do have staff here, but they cannot be paid to go on the trains, so our train is fully staffed by volunteers, you can learn to drive a steam train.  It’s a pretty long process, but anyone that’s got a passion for it will absolutely love it. So, it takes probably about four years all up if you haven’t got any  experience and you start off as a guard and then you move through as a steam trainee, get your high risk work license and then you become a trainee  fireman and then you eventually become a driver. So, to become a driver it’s the four year process.

Ben: Where would you do a course like this, and how do you get a piece of paper to say that you are qualified?

Julia: So, the High Risk Work Licence is through Work Place Health and Safety Queensland, but we run the courses here. So, all of our train crew, the courses are run here at the Merry Valley Rattler. So, once you sign up as a volunteer, you can gradually step through those courses and play with trains.

Ben: Oh, my goodness this is great. Now this beautiful railway station has been restored, it is immaculate. This is what it would look like probably on the first day it was opened.

Julia: That’s right this heritage station is heritage listed and we’re proud to be able to restore it back to its original working condition. It had been through a few different paint jobs over the years and now it’s back to its original heritage colours and it’s a beautiful piece of architecture. It’s in the pagoda style, and there weren’t many railway stations built like this, and yeah, we’re proud to have it in Gympie.

Ben: There’s a few left in Sydney that are like this and the great thing is they have to maintain them and keep them as per original like you know and then sometimes, one that comes to mind is one called Homebush and they have just on a massive restoration on it, but they’re even still levers off the side of the rail in a little hut where they use to pull all the levers, now it’s all  electronic. It gets so boring with all the electronics.

Julia: We’re very happy that we actually have no electronics. So, here at the Rattler, we do everything still the heritage way. So, we still change the line with the levers, we still use flags and whistles and we still have a Stationmaster, even though she’s a Station Mistress today.  

Ben: What about shunting them, is it all done in the old fashion way?

Julia: Yeah. So, we still use hand signals, light signals. We do have radio as back up now now, which they didn’t have back then, few little added safety bits and pieces, but for people when they come here, it’s really a heritage experience that they would have had in time gone by.

Ben: Ok, so people are up in the region, they’re driving their own adventure, how do we get involved with the train trip? What’s involved, where do we go, how much does it sort of cost?

Julia: So, there’s a few different options that we’ve got. We run our hero train, which is our steam train on a Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday, there are two trips a day. So, we find a lot of people on driving holidays they might come up and start at Amamoor, so you can start at the other end, come in for lunch and then head back out to Amamoor, so it’s a return journey. It’s a three-hour return journey, so an hour each way on the train and then an hour at one of our heritage stations enjoying the ambiance.

Ben: What’s it like on board for the passengers, what was the experience like?

Julia: It’s a real hoot. We have guest experience volunteers on there, and they will talk to you about heritage and history. There is a commentary on board, but they also walk around, and they have a little bit of fun. There’s plenty of opportunities at Amamoor to get up on the foot plate and you can shovel a little bit of coal and give it a go yourself and there is also lots of time to talk to train crew and involve yourself in the day-to-day  activities.

Ben: So, when you come into the railway station here, you’ve got this beautiful gift shop at the end then you’ve also got a restaurant which is really really lovely, tell us all about that.

Julia: So we started  the Platform Number One Cafe, it’s really modelled on the original refreshment rooms that where here at the station and they have local produce, use a lot of  produce from the local area and in turn promote the Merry Valley and the areas around and the small farmers.

Ben: Now in terms of distance where we’re pretty central to a few regions here, so what’s the average drive to get here from say Noosa?

Julia: From Noosa it’s about 45-minutes right up the highway, easy to get to.  From Noosa, a lot of people join us direct to Amamoor and stay in one of the beautiful BNB’s or one of the beautiful accommodation providers out that way and they make a whole weekend of it or make a week of it. Also coming from the coast, it’s only an hour, coming from the Sunshine Coast or coming from Bundaberg or down from one of those regions, it’s also not all that far, so yep, they can do that.

Ben: Can you tell us what happens now as the trains coming into the station, do you get our radio through to say we’re ten miles out, breaker breaker Stationmaster, get ready.

Julia: Yes, so we have radio communications to say it’s coming, but to be honest you can generally hear steam train coming through town. So, the steam train will whistle through the crossings and on a nice beautiful clear day, like today, beautiful winters Gympie day, you can hear the steam train coming through town. She works very hard to get up into the station because we’re up the top of a hill, which is very unusual for a train station.   As we are full today, full of passengers, she’s just short of 200 tonnes, so that old steam engine has to work very hard and you’ll hear her come in a big puff. 

Ben: Now what about the maintenance of these things, I mean do they cost a lot to maintain?

Julia: They do cost a fair bit to maintain, but we’re very lucky that we’re supported by a large volunteer base and down in the workshop we have up to 35 volunteers a day that are working on different pieces of rolling stock and keeping them. Either just painting and cleaning or doing mechanics on them and then we have some staff that also supplement that.

Ben: It’s really wonderful actually it’s a real community feel isn’t it,  I mean that old train has brought  so many people together and not only for the people that work on it, but there’s also people that are going on it for the first time that have never experienced steam travel.

Julia: That’s right, I think for the Gympie region and the wider region, it showcases what we’ve got here and it allows people to come to town and experience Gympie and experience what the Merry Valley has to offer and we’re just part of that. We’re part of showcasing the local region.

Ben: I bet it’s been hired for movie sets, weddings, this whole platform, it’s got a whole movie set feel to it.

Julia: We do quite a lot of weddings, we have car clubs that come, we have a lot of functions, we do a lot of birthday parties. So, we basically can cater for anything that is required and obviously the steam train is the focal point of that.

Ben: Well there you go.  We’ve been chatting today with Julia Avis all about the wonderful steam train and it’s going to come into the platform not too far off.

Julia: Two hundred people are going to get off of this platform and it will turn from a beautiful sleepy station into a wonderful bustling station of times gone by.      

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